Bahrain cracks down hard, breaking from Egypt's model

Bahrain and Libya, too, are upping the ante of repression in a way Tunisia and Egypt did not. Will it work?

By , Staff writer

The revolts in Tunisia and Egypt that swept their entrenched dictators from power were remarkably peaceful. Today, hundreds of thousands gathered in Egypt's Tahrir Square mourning their martyrs and insisting their revolution is not complete.

But now, other worried Middle Eastern autocrats appear to be taking a lesson from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts, and are bringing the hammer down fast.

That Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi would kill his people to save himself is no surprise. Col. Qaddafi is a bit of an outlier among Middle Eastern autocrats, having sought to build a cult of personality and a totalitarian regime far more closed and violent than most of the rest in the region.

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Human Rights Watch reported at least 24 protesters killed by Qaddafi's security forces yesterday, and activists said live rounds were being fired against protesters gathered for a "day of rage" today to bury the dead.

But in tiny Bahrain, where a US-backed Sunni monarchy rules over a populace that's about 70 percent Shiite, massive force has been unleashed on peaceful democracy protesters both today and yesterday as well. The Western-looking kingdom plays host to America's Fifth Fleet, leaving President Barack Obama with even fewer levers of influence in Bahrain than he had in the case of Egypt.

It's one thing to threaten withholding military aid from Egypt, a card the Obama administration probably played during the height of Egypt's uprising. It's quite another to say, "Stop shooting your people, or we'll remove our naval base."

Some foreign observers like the influential New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof appear to be shocked that a "moderate" regime (his word) like Bahrain's would kill its own people. They shouldn't be. The ruling Khalifa family, like Qaddafi, is engaged in the sort of existential struggle that Egypt and Tunisia's powerbrokers didn't face; while Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali may be out of power, the officers and political architecture that support their rule remain intact, at least for now.

But the odds that the Khalifas will preserve a powerful role for themselves in Bahrain in the face of true democracy are small. They appear to be acting accordingly. In the early morning Thursday, riot police stormed a democracy encampment at Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain's capital – an encampment set up in emulation of Cairo's Tahrir Square. The police fired shot guns and rubber bullets, killing five and dispersing protesters.

Today, it was the Bahrain Defense Force's turn to get in on the action. The kingdom's tiny military, largely made up of foreign mercenary recruits, assaulted groups of mourners who were burying the previous day's dead and trying to push protests forward. Reports from Manama said gunfire lashed crowds from helicopters and that dozens, at least, were injured. Al Jazeera quoted a doctor in a Manama hospital as saying the emergency room was "overwhelmed" with casualties. The death toll, if any, is still unclear.

Bahrain's population is about 1.2 million. While the five confirmed killed on Thursday seems small relative to the 300 or so who died in Egypt's uprising, it's already a greater percentage of the population than in Egypt, and that number seems likely to have grown today.

Will force work? Or will it spur on Bahrain's Shiites to greater cycles of mourning and protest?

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